Friday, March 28, 2008

What's Left?

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on 22 March, 2008.


Oscar Wilde once famously said that a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. If he was right about that, then it is clear that we live in a very cynical age.

It was Dr Richard Beeching who started it. In 1963, he axed thousands of miles of “unprofitable” railways thus depriving hundreds of rural communities of their lifeline to the outside world.

In time, the extension of car ownership helped to mitigate the effects of the “Beeching Axe,” but 45 years on, this has brought its own problems in terms of the impact on the environment.

The cost of keeping those rural railway lines open was very clearly appreciated at the time. The value of doing so, both to present and future generations, was perhaps less so.

Two decades on, the destruction of the coal industry by the Thatcher government fell into a similar category.

Scores of pits were forced to close on the grounds that they were “uneconomic,” with little analysis of the value of maintaining an indigenous coal industry, or of the value of the communities which depended on the mining jobs.

Those communities never really found another role and today many of them are riddled by drugs, crime and long-term unemployment.

Once again, the economic cost of keeping the pits open was clearly appreciated by everyone – but what, if any, value was put on the lives and communities which were destroyed?

By the time the Iron Lady left office in 1990, the elimination of any consideration of non-monetary value from political decision-making in this country was all but complete.

From then on, when confronted with a new policy idea, people would tend to ask “what is it going to cost?” as opposed to “what value will it bring?”

Mrs Thatcher’s defenders would argue that it was precisely the imposition of such financial rigour that brought about the transformation of the country from an economic basket-case to an economic success story.

Her detractors, though, would say it exacerbated the divide between a country of haves and have nots and turned us into a nation of cynics, in the Wildean sense of the term.

So where is all this going, in terms of current-day political debates? Well, over the past ten days, we’ve seen a couple of examples of what can happen in a political culture which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing

In the Budget, Chancellor Alistair Darling slapped a 2p increase on the price of a pint of beer and 14p on a bottle of wine, ostensibly to tackle “binge drinking.”

As I noted last week, any sensible approach to this problem would have concentrated on more targeted measures such as curbing “happy hours,” and clamping down on supermarkets who sell booze at cheaper prices than bottled water.

In fact it was no more than a transparent tax grab on a “soft” target - drinkers – who are second only to smokers when it comes to providing the Treasury with a convenient cash-cow.

The main casualty of this of course is not the “binge drinking culture,” but the village pub, already under threat from the exodus of young people in favour of second-home owners.

As a result, the Budget has already spawned an internet campaign on the social networking site Facebook calling for Alistair Darling to be barred from every pub in Britain.

Okay, so this is the usual kind of frivolous nonsense you would expect from Facebook, but there is a serious political point here.

No-one is arguing that local pubs should be subsidised by the state in the way that the railways and the coal industry were, but the state should at least seek to create a tax environment which recognises their importance.

And just as pubs are at the heart of their communities, so too are post offices - 2,500 of which are due to close in the next year.

Leaving aside the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion – and I really have said all I want to say about that – the rebellion by 19 Labour MPs against the planned closures provided the major talking point of the week at Westminster.

What was notable about this rebellion was that it occurred in a debate initiated by the Tories – something which is almost unheard of for Labour MPs to do.

Yet 19 of them felt sufficiently strongly about the issue to overcome tribal hostility, including Easington’s John Cummings, who has never forgotten that his first duty is to his local community.

Does this debate actually mean anything in terms of party politics? Well, there was possibly more than an element of gesture politics about this week’s Commons vote.

For all their sound and fury, the Conservatives have not actually committed themselves to re-opening the threatened sub-post offices, and no-one seriously expects them to.

Indeed, given that Shadow Chancellor George Osborne this week pledged to stick to Labour spending plans for the first four years of a Tory administration, it is hard to see how they could find the money.

But the absence of a genuine debate on this and other issues does again pose the question of what politics, and government, is really for.

In the final analysis, we don’t need sub-post offices, or railways, or even local pubs. We can do all our banking online, all our drinking at home, and all our travelling in the car.

We can have a perfectly functional society that way, but it will be an increasingly atomised one.

The question is whether that is something we really want, or whether we should be doing more to protect those bits of our national life which cannot be measured in purely monetary terms.

It’s a question which no politician since Thatcher has seriously attempted to answer.

1 comment:

Toque said...

Hey, that's my frivolous nonsense!


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